Kristen Houghton is the author of nine novels, two non-fiction books, a collection of short stories, a book of essays, and a children’s novella. Her Cate Harlow, Private Investigations series has been voted one of the top five mystery/thriller series by International Mystery Writers. She is also the author of the Horror Book Club award-winning Quick-Read, Welcome to Hell.  Her latest book is Lilith Angel.

She loves writing horror stories which she terms her ‘strange imaginative gift.’

Kristen has covered politics, news, and lifestyle issues as a contributor to the Huffington Post. Her writing portfolio includes Criminal Element Magazine, a division of Macmillan Publishing, Hartford Woman, Today, head writer and senior fiction editor for Mused Literary Magazine, interviews and reviews for HBO documentaries, OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, and The Style Channel.


by Kristen Houghton


Ainsley peeked through the curtain at the road in front of her house and there it was again.
The ‘it’ being a person, but whether male or female, she couldn’t tell. The moon was just a sliver of an arched bow in the night sky and so it was too dark to make anything, or anyone, out clearly. Whoever was there was dressed in dark colors with some type of a hood or scarf over the head.

She looked at the digital clock on the stove. 2:15 AM. She was a poor sleeper at best and she’d gotten up to get a bottle of cold water from the refrigerator. On her way back to her bedroom, she had looked through the curtain. The light on the pole nearest her house had been out for almost a month and even though she had called public service three times, nothing was done to install a new bulb. All she got was an annoying computerized voice message that said, “We are working on your request and we are sorry for any inconvenience.”

Ainsley sighed and peeked out her window again. Whoever it was still stood in the road, looking at her house. This was the second time she’d seen this person. Why were they watching her house? Maybe it was a crazed serial killer. Should she call the police?

She told her husband about seeing the stranger after the first time, but he was no help at all. He simply said, “Probably someone who works nights and goes for a walk before going to bed. Or simply some insomniac. You’ve survived two deadly experiences in your life. You don’t sleep well, Ainsley—I know you wander the house at night—and you had a breakdown. I get that you have survivor’s guilt but, as far as I’m concerned, you shouldn’t feel guilty for being alive. Don’t read tragedy and possible death into every single thing you see. You make everything a deadly crisis.”

Crisis, yeah good word there, my dear husband. I know you’re tired of all the stress I seem to cause. I wore you down with my constant panic, my fear, my survivor’s guilt as you put it. But those events didn’t happen to you, and so, can you really understand?

You are the one who wanted to buy this house on a country road in the middle of nowhere. You wanted privacy, you said; you wanted me to heal. But I believe what you really meant to do was hide me away from polite society after my complete mental breakdown.

So no, I won’t call the police because you’d just pull them aside and tell them I have “paranoia issues” like you always do.

Looking out the window again, she saw that whoever had been there had left. Cautiously she went from window to window on the first floor looking out, expecting to find someone staring back at her when she lifted the curtains. Each time she moved a curtain aside she held her breath but—there was no one there.

That night she slept uneasily; the events that happened at the bank eighteen months ago playing on a loop in her head. She’d gone to the bank late in the afternoon to use the ATM which of course wasn’t working again. That meant that she had to go inside to use her card. She’d already had a long day at work and looking at the line inside, Ainsley had sighed in frustration.

But she needed to get some cash for the weekend and there was nothing she could do but get on that line. A nervous man in front of her kept peering over her shoulder every few seconds and looking outside. Very annoying. She had sighed to let him know how annoyed she was.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw a Brink’s truck come to a stop outside the bank. The man in front of her seemed to tense even more when he saw it. Two armed guards walked inside carrying bags of money to be deposited. As they passed by the line, the man in front of Ainsley grabbed her hard against him and placed a gun to her head.

“If anyone decides to play hero, she’s dead,” he yelled to the guards. Give me the money now and we’ll walk out of here.”

“You won’t get away with it, buddy,” said one of the guards. “How’re you getting out of here? The cops will grab you in a heartbeat once you’re outside. You think someone hasn’t already pushed a silent alarm button that goes straight to the police station? They’re on their way.”

“She’ll be my ticket to get away!” the man yelled. Ainsley could feel the gun shaking against her temple. Would he shoot her by accident because he was too scared to hold still?

The man continued, “She’s got a car; I saw her get out of it. Tell any cops that she dies immediately if I even think that they’re following me. Now give me the goddamned money!”

But he never got the money. One of the guards did decide to play hero and pulled his gun on the would-be bank robber. What happened next seemed to be in slow motion.

Ainsley twisted sideways and fell to the floor. The gunman shot the guard and the other guard panicked and fired two shots wildly, his aim completely off, hitting two customers. Several people on the line ran toward the door and were shot dead by the gunman.

Lying on the floor with her hands over her head, Ainsley could hear the sound of sirens. The police. Help was coming! But the gunman, sensing that his world was crumbling down around him went on a wild rampage, running to where the remaining customers cowered on the floor. Ainsley couldn’t breathe when she heard more shooting. She kept her eyes tightly closed as she imagined the man shooting each customer dead. She knew it would be her time any second.

By the time a police sniper ended his life, the man with the gun had killed everyone on that line. Everyone but Ainsley.

“It wasn’t your time to go ma’am,” said the EMT who checked her out. “You cheated death.”

Ainsley had shivered and thought, “It’s not the first time.”


The first time she had cheated death, she was a child. She remembered it clearly.

She was ten-years-old that early summer morning, and excited because her best friend and five other girls were all going to the new amusement park that had opened up the week before. Her best friend’s mother was taking them and had even gotten advance tickets for all the girls. The park boasted the ‘Scream Machine,’ the highest and fastest roller-coaster ever built and, even though Ainsley was afraid of heights, she promised her best friend she’d go on it with her.

But when they stood in line to ride the coaster, Ainsley began to shake. She looked at how high it was and how fast it went and she could not, absolutely could not, get on that ride. Her feet refused to move forward.

The other girls called her a stupid baby and her best friend refused to talk to her. Ainsley watched them all get on the coaster into three cars that were hooked together, laughing and ready to have fun. At the last minute, she rushed up to the man who was working the ride and said that she wanted to get on but he said he had already pushed the lever and it was too late.

She watched as the ride rose up, up, up and then began its downward spiral. There were so many turns and it went so fast! Around sharp turns, around and around…so fast. The screams of laughter echoed down to the people below.

But at one steep spiral the wheels of the three cars her friends were in made a screeching sound and you could see that the wheels had come off the track. The worker stopped the ride but the sudden stop made the three cars wobble back and forth. Screams of laughter turned to screams of terror as the cars with her friends tilted outward toward the ground, seemed to pause, and then tumbled from that great height down toward the parking lot. The crash of metal hitting asphalt was deafening.

All six of her friends were killed.

That night Ainsley, with the help of a mild sedative from an emergency room doctor, fell asleep in her parents’ bed. Through a haze, she heard her father whispering comforting words to her mother. “She’s all right; our little girl is all right. Shush, now. She cheated death.”


Ainsley was reaching for the mailbox through her half-open front door when a woman passing by called out to her. “Hi there! Have you settled in yet? We’re neighbors. My name’s Cherie and I live across the road. Of course you can’t see my house what with the trees and all.” She laughed.

Ainsley nodded from the safety of her foyer and, even though she was still hesitant to be with strangers, invited the woman in for coffee. She had to start somewhere; she had to begin living normally and without fear.

After a bit of talk about shopping, where the best produce could be found, the only pharmacy in town, and everyday things, Ainsley decided that she would risk ridicule about being a bit silly and tell her about seeing someone outside her house twice in the early morning hours. “Should I be concerned?”

“Outside, just staring at your house? Well, that might be old Mr. Hall. His wife died quite a few years ago and now he lives with his son way down the road. My goodness, he’s almost one-hundred-years-old!”

“Why would he be staring at our house?”

“Oh, you don’t know.” Cherie shook her head a little sadly. “He used to live here. This was his home. You and your husband bought his house from his son. Poor Mr. Hall loves this house but he couldn’t handle all the work involved in its upkeep. That’s why he’s with his son now. He probably goes out at night when his son and daughter-in-law are asleep. I feel sorry for him, really. I guess he’s just wistful for how life used to be and that’s why he walks over here.”

Ainsley smiled and secretly sighed with relief. Just an old man. Okay, good. No harm there. Nothing to fear from a man nearing his one-hundredth birthday.

That night she woke at 1:56 AM. She went into the bathroom to get a paper cup of water. Back in her bedroom, she debated lifting the shade just a tiny bit to see if her night visitor was out front. She had to see if he was there again.

And there he was: a dark shape standing on the gravel path in front of her house. She stood there watching him for about five minutes. He simply stood and watched the house without moving then lifted his hand as if saying good-night to his former home. “Good-night Mr. Hall,” whispered Ainsley lowering the shade. “Good night.”


The early spring days were an actual pleasure for Ainsley and she felt well enough to go outside and sit in a garden chair and read. Now that she knew who was staring at her house in the early morning hours, hiding inside wasn’t something she felt she needed to do. That poor old man, so lonely for his former home.

She actually felt sorry for the old man and thought of maybe going outside one night and saying hello to him. After all she usually woke up in the middle of the night, so why not go outside? She’d also thought of maybe going to his son’s house. Where had her neighbor Cherie said that was? Oh yes, way down the road. But, Ainsley wasn’t sure if she wanted to meet the old man’s family—besides his son and daughter-in-law, there might be other family members. She wasn’t yet ready to be with a group of people she didn’t know. Even with Cherie she still felt a bit uncomfortable.

And so, cradling a cup of coffee in her hands, Ainsley sat on her front steps, enjoying the warm breeze and feeling better than she had for months. The sun was shining, the air was warm, and she felt safe. Cherie had stilled her fears that some lunatic was watching her house. Just a lonely old man who posed no threat. It was a cliché perhaps, but Ainsley felt good to be alive. Maybe her husband was right—she shouldn’t feel guilty just for having survived two tragedies.

Putting the cup down on the steps and walking around to the side of the house, Ainsley noticed from a distance that the dirt around her flower bed had been disturbed. Must be an animal; maybe a deer from the look of the disturbance in the dirt. But if it was a deer, why weren’t the flowers eaten? Should she be concerned? Was it possible it wasn’t a deer at all but a rabid coyote? Oh God! What if—?

She shook her head to clear away the negative thoughts she’d promised herself she wouldn’t allow in her mind anymore. She was through imagining danger all around her, had to be through with those thoughts. They had taken so much away from her everyday normal living.

She took a deep breath and began to think. As far as she knew, there were no coyotes in this area.
She stretched her arms above her head, took a breath, and walked back toward her garden. It looked so pretty in the sunlight. So peaceful, an oasis…just what she needed.

But as she got closer to the flower bed, a strange thing seemed to happen. The warmth she had felt sitting on her steps seemed to disappear. A sudden cold shift in the air turned the warm breeze into a chilly wind and Ainsley felt goosebumps rise on her arms.

Looking up, she saw dark clouds forming in the sky. For some reason that she didn’t understand she felt terrified. She didn’t want to stay outside any more, no matter how lovely the day, so she went back inside.

In the bedroom, her husband pulled a shirt over his head while giving his explanation of why Ainsley had felt that chill in the garden. He told her again not to make everything into a ‘deadly crisis.’

“It was probably just one of those cold squalls mentioned by meteorologists on the weather channel. You know, a sudden gust of wind from a nearby storm. They had a lot of rain two towns over. Probably blew some cold air over our way.”

Maybe he’s right, thought an exhausted Ainsley. Maybe she did exaggerate a simple, normal occurrence into a possible terrifying situation, a ‘deadly crisis.’ She’d have to try harder to see things as non-life-threatening.

At 1:48 in the morning, the thirst that seemed to plague her came back. She remembered that her therapist had said, of ‘unresolved PTSD’: “The need to drink water is a universal cry for help in traumatized people.”

Except this time, there was also a painful cramp in her left leg. Her husband was snoring lightly, deep into an easy sleep, so Ainsley slid quietly from the bed and went downstairs.

She grabbed a bottle of water and wandered from room to room guzzling it and trying to loosen the cramp in her leg. Standing near the front windows, she wondered if her old night visitor had returned and was standing on the road outside her house. She parted the curtain just a little and—there he was. Old Mr. Hall, not moving at all, just standing there.

Fascinated by his utter stillness, Ainsley sat on the arm of the couch, flexing her leg, and watched him. Fifteen minutes went by and still he stood there like a silent sentinel protecting a castle. Twice she saw him shake his and say something to himself…probably remembering the past when this house was his. She imagined him telling the house how much he had loved living there. Finally, he raised his hand in a good-bye gesture to the house and walked away down the road.

Every night for four weeks, Ainsley watched the old man stand in front of her house talking to himself. It became her guilty pleasure to watch him, unobserved from inside her house. Every night she watched as he raised his hand in farewell to the house and walked away back to his son’s home. The nighttime, peaceful, quiet, no fears.

“It’s as if the night is his time for going down memory lane,” said Ainsley to her husband one morning. “The daytime belongs to his son and his son’s family and the house where he now lives, but at night he can visit his old home and reminisce about his past. Did I tell you he even waves good-bye to our house when he leaves?”

Her husband was going to a business conference and would be gone for two nights. It would be the first time Ainsley would be alone and he kept asking her if she was sure she’d be all right. She assured him that she would be.

“I’ll be fine. I need to be fine.”

Grabbing his travel bag, he kissed her, said he’d call her later, and told her to get out of the house a bit, maybe take a walk with their new neighbor Cherie.

Watching him drive away, Ainsley had every intention of getting out of the house a bit. Except her idea of getting out wasn’t to take a walk with Cherie but to finally greet the old man who came over every night to visit the house where he once lived.

Maybe she should make the night her own, too. Both times when she almost died happened in the day time. Nothing bad had ever happened to her at night.

She prepared her usual place by the downstairs window and waited. It was hot and the overhead fan did little to cool the living room so Ainsley opened the window a bit and parted the curtain. During the day she had made a decision: tomorrow night, yes…tomorrow night, she was going to go outside and greet the old man. All she had to do was plan what she was going to say to Mr. Hall. She certainly didn’t want to frighten him. She’d just calmly walk outside and say hello.

That night, as she watched the old man stand in front of her house, she smiled. The night was quiet with just the hint of a breeze and through the open window Ainsley heard the old man talking to himself.

“I know, I know. Life is short, shorter than we realize. But it is precious, you understand. That’s why I cling to it, you see. Yes, yes, many happy memories.”

He’s talking about his life in this house, thought Ainsley. He has precious memories and he clings to that former life.

His voice was frail and she leaned forward to listen more closely. “And I have to be grateful, very grateful for this time that’s been allotted me.”

How sweet and poignant to be grateful for his life here in this house. Ainsley had tears in her eyes as she watched him wave good-night to the house and walk away. Tomorrow night I will go outside and speak to this gentle, old man, even in the dark.

The night air turned suddenly chilly and she closed the window. See you tomorrow night, Mr. Hall.

The next night, Mr. Hall arrived in front of her house at precisely 2:33 AM. Ainsley had been waiting anxiously for him. Not wanting to meet this man while dressed in night clothes and slippers, she had put on old shorts, a T-shirt and slip-on sneakers. Maybe she would walk him part of the way back to his son’s house. The night was safe.

The front door was open and through the screen she heard him talking to the house.

“Days fly by, don’t they? The clock goes forward not backward, right? Time, precious time. I’ve gotten a lot of time.”

Ainsley opened the door and stepped onto her front steps. The old man stopped talking and looked at her. He seemed a little startled but he didn’t move to leave; he just stood there, looking at her.

“Hello, Mr. Hall. My name is Ainsley and my husband and I bought this house from your son. I want you to know you are welcome here anytime.” She laughed a little. “When I first saw you I was, well, I was afraid. I didn’t know who you were but my neighbor told me this used to be your house.” Ainsley walked down the stairs toward the old man. “How silly to fear you.”

Mr. Hall shook his head and said, “You don’t have to fear me, Dearie. It’s him you got to fear, not me.”

The old man stared past her and Ainsley turned and saw a figure standing near her rose bushes at the side of the house.

“I been talking to him for a long time. Bid him good-night every night. He knows me and we’re kinda good friends. It seems like you owe him.”

The figure moved towards her; a tall, slim, handsome man nicely dressed in a jogging suit and running shoes.

“Hello Ainsley. It’s way past your time.”

The figure reached for her hand and gently held it. He nodded to Mr. Hall who raised his hand in farewell.

“You can’t cheat death forever, Dearie.”